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In character with John Stephens

United States, January 14, 2010

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Peter Korn

The Portland Tribune
January, 2010

A conversation with an interesting Portlander

Good thing John Stephens likes to travel. As a senior program officer for local nonprofit Mercy Corps, Stephens does plenty of that, back and forth all around the globe, wherever aid is needed.

Portland Tribune: What exactly is a senior program officer?

John Stephens: We have different desks here at Mercy Corps, so we divide the world up into regions.

Tribune: Oh, sort of like superpowers.

Stephens: More like National Geographic. We’re not trying to conquer new territories; we need to make sense of the world.

Tribune: Good luck on that. Anyway, you’ve been in the field a lot; what is the most uncommon situation you’ve found yourself in?

Stephens: Usually it’s something to do with soldiers or army checkpoints. A couple of years ago I was in Kashmir. We were driving at night, rushing to get back from a dinner to our hotel. Our driver went right through a new checkpoint, and the soldier screamed at us. We hit the brakes and slid for 20 or 30 feet and slowly backed up.

I didn’t realize what a big deal that was until the next day, when I read a newspaper article. A government vehicle had done the exact same thing, and the soldiers had fired on it and killed everyone in the car.

Tribune: Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Stephens: I ate something that looked like a hoof in Afghanistan, but it had some meat on it.

Tribune: Taste like chicken?

Stephens: No. It tasted like hoof.

Tribune: How do you know what hoof tastes like?

Stephens: Because I had it in Afghanistan.

Tribune: What about the travel?

Stephens: I spend a lot of time on airplanes. Traveling in the developing world is different. You can be in a plane and they’ll leave the cockpit door open.

In India, they would start the planes up on the tarmac, and there’s a guy who wheels a giant fire extinguisher, as tall as the guy, up to the engine, like he’s about to put out a giant fire.

The guy starts the engine and plumes of black smoke and fire and sparks shoot out the back of the engine. Normally I would think something is going very wrong, but everyone was very calm.

Tribune: Did the guy ever use the giant extinguisher?

Stephens: No. He’s just there in case something goes wrong.

Tribune: In how many languages can you count to 10?

Stephens: Just four, including English — German, French and Chinese. It seems like every time I start to learn a few words in one country, I’m off again and I’m saying the wrong thing and people are giving me the evil eye. It’s easier just to speak English.

Tribune: Yes, but what’s the hardest name to pronounce you’ve come across?

Stephens: It’s a place I worked called Kanapathichettikullum. The irony of the place is it’s just a tiny village with a gigantic name.

Tribune: That nobody can say five times fast. What’s the most remote place you have ever been?

Stephens: Probably northern Afghanistan. I spent a day with some nomadic herders who were moving sheep across the plains and hills. They have these tents that look a little like yurts. It’s not even a community; it’s not even a village. You’re dealing with people who for thousands of years have been walking across this unmarked path.

Tribune: Were they friendly?

Stephens: They were really friendly. They were interested in what Mercy Corps could help them with. Many of the nomads decided to settle down, and there are communities where Mercy Corps supported various programs.

Tribune: Do you get unusual requests for aid or loans?

Stephens: The usual thing people say is they want to start a poultry farm or bike repair business. We’ve started quite a few beauty salons in Kabul, and we also support somebody who is a wedding singer.

Tribune: This is where?

Stephens: In Kabul. It was just like Adam Sandler in the movie. He had a big hairdo and he would do weddings and croon the songs. He needed his amplifier and microphone, and everything I ever heard about the business was that it was a great success.

Tribune: Did you ever go to one of his weddings?

Stephens: No.

Tribune: Did you ever hear him sing, then? How could you know if he was a good investment?

Stephens: No, I didn’t. I think we just assumed he was already successful.

Tribune: Maybe it was the hairdo.